Jamaica Diaspora awardee found calling in the North
August 17, 2017
As the frustration mounted with being unable to acquire jobs in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Donika Jones flippantly suggested to her 2014 Queen’s University Master of Public Health graduating class that they should perhaps move north to see if they could get work there.
“It was a running joke we had,” she said.
Little did Jones know that she would end up in Nunavut, Canada’s largest and northernmost territory as a chronic disease & injury prevention health promotion specialist.
“Just a week after sending an application to the Government of Manitoba, I saw there was an opening in Nunavut and jumped at it,” she pointed out. “There was nothing for me to lose at that point and I was taking anything I got.”
Despite the harsh and long winters and very cool summers, Jones has adjusted to life in her new surroundings which, during the last Ice Age, was mostly covered by glacial ice.
“I think there’s a reason why I ended up in that part of the country,” she said. “I went there with an open mind and it is sometimes good to get out of your comfort zone. As someone with an interest in Indigenous issues, it’s a great opportunity to go there and learn about another important aspect of Canadian history. The people are very open and welcoming.”
On the job since September 2015, Jones was looking at a few places where she could experience some warm sunshine for a short vacation this summer when she learnt she would be travelling to Jamaica to receive the Governor-General’s Achievement Award.
She was among six members of the Jamaica Diaspora bestowed with the award during last month’s Diaspora conference in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.
“It was such an honour and privilege to be recognized in this manner,” said Jones, the product of Jamaican immigrants. “But more than anything else, it says to me that I have to do more because to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Claudette Cameron-Stewart, the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) director of communications, nominated Jones for the award.
“Donika is decent, determined, consistent, focussed and very committed,” said the former Jamaica Diaspora outreach officer. “Nothing prevents her from succeeding in any task she undertakes. There is also a lighter side to her in that she’s good at mimicking other accents and people that will make those around her burst with laughter. She can be both funny and serious.”
In 2008, Jones was part of the Canadian Future Leaders contingent that attended the Diaspora conference.
“That was where I really saw Donika in action,” Cameron-Stewart said. “She was very involved with the young people who were in challenged situations and needed support. She dove into something she had never done before and came out of it looking real good in the eyes of many, including me.”
The Governor-General Achievement Award program was launched in 1991 by late Governor General Sir Howard Cooke to honour individuals over the age of 35 resident in Jamaica who had overcome challenges to make useful societal contributions. The program was expanded in 2006 to include the Jamaica Diaspora.
Glenford Duffus, a Toronto District School Board superintendent of education, was the other Canadian recipient. He was unable to attend the event in Jamaica.
In making the presentations during the opening of the Diaspora conference at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel, Governor-general Sir Patrick Allen said the recipients embody the values that Jamaican hold dear.
“I want to thank you for all that you do for Jamaica, preserving the Jamaican character of enterprise, energy, creativity and co-operative endeavours in your countries of residence,” he added.
The youngest of three siblings, Jones was born in Winnipeg and raised in the Greater Toronto Area which has been her home since she was two years old.
After graduating from Applewood Heights Secondary School in Mississauga, she successfully pursued language interpretation & translation studies at the University of Ottawa and a Bachelor of Science degree in human biology & equity studies at the University of Toronto.
Unsuccessful in securing entry to medical school, Jones was persuaded to pursue a career in public health by one of her university professors.
“At first, I didn’t think that was for me,” she said. “I did some research, found a couple of schools and ending up applying. As I went along, I understood the impact language has on health and how important my first degree was. You have to make sure that what you are explaining to people is very clear.”
Coming from parents who are both educators, it’s not surprising that Jones takes education and learning seriously.
Donald Jones worked with developmentally challenge students while his wife, Carol, runs a program for young people with behavioural issues.
“They have shaped how I respond to individuals and needs and instituted a lot of good things in me, including, faith, discipline and a strong work ethic,” Jones said. “Even though there were times when they weren’t sure what they were supporting, they were still there for me.”
Prior to taking up a contract position in Nunavut, Jones interned as a health equity specialist, co-managed three national retailer accounts as a bilingual product fulfilment & reverse logistic specialist and was a bilingual customer care representative at Baxter International Inc.